Making hay

31st January 2003 at 00:00
Constable's paintings are so familiar they are almost a cliche. But look deeper and you find much more, says Ann Clayton

John Constable, one of the most famous British landscape artists, is a man whose paintings are so familiar they seem a cliche of chocolate box beauty.

But they originated from a deep-seated rebellion against the tastes and popular culture of his time. Constable's work celebrated the ordinary and familiar rather than his contemporaries' ideal of beauty. He left behind not only paintings, but also a vast hoard of notes, letters and sketches.

Constable was born in 1776, the son of a fairly prosperous mill-owner. In 1799, at the age of 23 he moved to London with the intention of becoming an artist. Both Constable and his great contemporary, Turner, attended the art school of the Royal Academy. Established in 1768 to encourage a wider interest in art among the public, the academy exhibited paintings once a year, providing an opportunity for artists to sell work and gain commissions.

In the early 19th century, landscape painting was considered one of the least important of painting genres, less improving and uplifting than historical work or portraiture. The landscape art of the period involved painting a carefully selected view in accordance with an ideal. Such a scene would probably include an impressive tree in the foreground leading into a central distant view in pale blues and golds.

While Turner captured the romantic spirit of the age, creating drama and movement in his work, Constable concentrated on a realistic portrayal of his local countryside, a place where ordinary people lived and worked growing food and keeping beasts. He believed artists should paint only what they had intimate acquaintance of. Even after his permanent move to London following his marriage to Maria Bicknell in 1816, Constable continued to paint views of Suffolk, now constructing his work from sketches and memory.

He concentrated on only a small number of places to which he would return again and again.

While he was alive, it was mainly friends of the family who bought Constable's work. By choice, he never travelled abroad; all his work is closely linked to the southern counties where he grew up, fell in love and visited with his family. While Turner became the youngest ever Royal Academian at the age of 23, a sign of recognition by his peers, Constable had to wait 27 years before he became an elected member, and then by a majority of only one vote.

In 1802, Constable started exhibiting at the annual academy shows; his most famous canvases, his "six footers", were an attempt to achieve as much notice as possible. In 1821, the plan succeeded when the French art critic Nodier published an enthusiastic appreciation of "The Hay wain".

Constable's work was then shown at the Salon in the Louvre. He sold 20 works - more than in the whole of the rest of his career with the London art trade.

Lesson ideas

Constable provides opportunities to study artistic processes. Modern day X-ray techniques show us how artists make alterations. Paint which becomes translucent with age reveals images underneath it. We can study the different stages of Constable's work from initial sketches made outdoors to completed large-scale paintings.

In the latter half of his career, Constable painted preliminary oil sketches on six-foot canvases, enabling him to experiment on a large scale.

In "The Hay Wain", the sketch seems to be an experiment in the effects of light and dark, while in the final composition he added or removed figures and objects.

Landscapes can be created in the classroom using similar techniques. Groups of children can combine two-minute sketches made outdoors of trees or people to create landscapes. Constable used thread to divide his sketches into grids which he then transferred square by square to his large work.

Try this technique in the classroom. Composition can also be studied through simplification. Pupils concentrate on drawing the most important shapes, leaving out detail.

Encourage pupils to look carefully. Asking what they can see is the most basic but the most easily missed of ways into painting: "The Hay Wain" scene can be comprehended immediately, there is no hidden symbolism.

Constable's subjects, people and animals are familiar. His work captures the everyday, "the sound of water escaping from milldams, willows, old rotten banks, slimy posts, and brickwork. Painting is another word for feeling," he wrote.

Constable brought much more intense powers of observation than other painters to the recording of individual forms and the changing moods of nature. He made many sketches of trees, plants and clouds. His trees are not just generalised trees but identifiable species (elm trees in "Old Hall Park; Study of Ash Trees"). Pupils can make a collection of found natural objects and imitate their texture with pencils, pastels and fabric. Weather is a very physical presence in the pictures: in "The Hay Wain" the heat of the midday sun is almost palpable. Like Constable, pupils can make drawings outside of clouds or water colours having prepared a blue background wash.

Ann Clayton is education officer at Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust

Teaching tips

Constable links with study units 6c "a sense of place" and 7c "recreating landscape", but his work can be a stimulus across the art curriculum.

Key stage 1 and 2

* Encouraging discussion. Ask what can pupils see. What would they be able to hear? What are the people in the picture thinking and saying?

* Mixing colour like Constable. Ask pupils to draw a pattern on paper and fill it with as many shades of green as they can. Draw outlines of landscapes and experiment with colours to create moods.

* Applying texture like Constable. Apply paint in separate dabs, experiment with thick paint mixed with sand and pva glue.

* Linking with other artists. Compare Constable's work with Monet's.

Produce work in imitative styles concentrating on colour and use of the brush.

Explore weaving and collage. Card frames can be used to weave in wool, paper or fabric, creating foregrounds and background and using glue guns to attach fabric details.

Key stages 3 and 4

Encouraging discussion and observation. Visit an art gallery to see a work. Its size should allow whole-class discussion in front of it. Working in pairs, one pupil describes a picture to another who draws it from the description.

* Working like Constable. Work outside with sketch books or camera to record objects in a landscape. Using a grid, combine the objects into a large lanscape. Use a limited palette to record tone in a single object.

Use pencils to create texture by concentrating on details. Use viewfinders (empty slide holders are useful) or two-L shaped card cutouts to focus attention.

* Looking at other artists. Draw outlines and large scale works in the style of other artists.

John Constable 1776-1837

Constable started painting in his native Suffolk before he left school. His early work was in the picturesque tradition of Gainsborough and he developed his own style only slowly. His aim was to render scenery more directly and realistically, developing the tradition inherited from 17th-century Dutch masters. He had a great influence on French romantics such as Delacroix and, ultimately, the Impressionists.

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